In his 2017 State of the State address, Gov. Doug Ducey said it is time to give all Arizona teachers a raise.
Gov. Doug Ducey sounded an optimistic call to expand opportunity to all in his State of the State address Monday, asking the Arizona Legislature to join him in giving public-school teachers a raise, expanding all-day kindergarten in low-income areas, and adopting other policies he said will help poor Arizonans.
The Republican governor, who is halfway through his first term, did not identify funding sources for his many proposals but reiterated his vow to not raise taxes. Additional state money could be found through government reforms, he said. He is scheduled to release his budget on Friday.
After an opening that honored Arizona trailblazers, Ducey directed his remarks to school advocates and critics who have anxiously awaited what would follow Proposition 123, the ballot measure that put $3.5 billion into schools over the next 10 years and settled a long-running lawsuit over the state’s underfunding of schools.
“Some people have asked, ‘What’s next?’ ” the governor said. “After 123 – where are steps 4,5 and 6?”
Ducey counted 15 new education proposals. They range from signing bonuses for teachers who work in low-income public schools to money for school construction and repair to erasing student debt for those who pursue careers in public schools. Several of the education plans Ducey outlined drew bipartisan applause, with some lawmakers standing to show their enthusiasm.
His speech, however, might have been as notable for what it did not include: For the third year in a row, there were no plans to eliminate or get to as close to zero as possible, personal income taxes, a centerpiece of his 2014 campaign.
‘Planting a flag on education’
Ducey’s intense focus on education stunned many Democrats and Republicans alike.
Political observers said the speech marked an important moment for the governor, coming at a time when some doubted his commitment to the issue, even after Prop. 123.
“He was planting a flag on education,” said Republican consultant Wes Gullett. “It was a great pivot. He spent 40 minutes talking about education and he spent 40 seconds talking about tax cuts. What that told me about Doug Ducey is that he listens, and he’s not tone-deaf.”
Ducey said his budget would include new dollars for public schools – even after factoring for inflation – each year of his administration.
He also proposed a raise for Arizona’s teachers, and $1,000 signing bonuses for teachers who pursue careers in low-income schools. Ducey’s spokesman later said the raise would amount to “a couple percent” total and would be phased in over several years, starting next school year.
“He sounds like a Democrat,” exclaimed Democrat Rep. Ken Clark, intending it as a compliment. “He sounded like he was running for office, sometimes. I want to know how he’s going to pay for it.”
Cost was also on the mind of House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, who called the governor’s agenda “ambitious.”
“Setting out an agenda is one thing, but obviously being able to pay for it is another,” Mesnard said, adding that he suspected some programs would have to be cut or eliminated to pay for Ducey’s plans. “Obviously, we’ll be having a revenue conversation … as we always do.”
He suggested, however, that most House Republicans would support the governor’s proposals.
How to pay for it
The governor will have education allies outside of the Legislature. Ducey and state lawmakers are under mounting pressure from business leaders, education groups and parents to find more money for education, which polls show remains an issue top of voters’ minds.
“Now, I’m not promising a money tree,” the governor said. “I can’t. There’s no pot of gold, or cash hiding under a seat cushion. And unlike Washington, we don’t print money, and we won’t raise taxes.”
While the plans he unveiled Monday might quell the calls from some, it was almost immediately criticized by Democrats as insufficient.
Ducey delivered the speech inside a packed chamber of the House of Representatives, where lawmakers, Supreme Court justices and public officials gathered to hear his agenda for the coming year. His wife, Angela, sat in the front row alongside the governor’s guest, Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams, the city’s first female police chief. The governor also welcomed the daughter of Raul Castro, the late Arizona governor who served as the state’s first Latino governor.
Ducey’s plan would cost the state millions of dollars at a time when there’s little excess money and no appetite for new taxes by those in control.
The state will have a $24 million surplus in the next fiscal year, after adjusting for increased enrollment in schools and the state’s health-insurance program, and higher prison populations, according to legislative budget analysts. The Governor’s Office has indicated it believes the surplus could be a bit higher.
But that money could quickly disappear given the state’s higher minimum wage, which voters approved raising to $10 an hour. Mesnard and Senate President Steve Yarbrough have tempered hopes for new projects.
Rep. Rebecca Rios, the House Minority Leader, said she liked some of Ducey’s proposals, but said the state can’t afford it, given his pledge to cut taxes every year and not raise them.
“If you’re going to do them adequately, they’re going to require a large investment of dollars,” she said. “I hope this is not a a situation where he’s making big promises and throwing nickels at the problem.”
‘Parents love it, kids love it’
In recent months, there has been a push by business leaders and educators to expand full-day kindergarten, which is seen as key to giving students a good start. The state does not track which schools offer full-day kindergarten programs, nor is it required to oversee how schools implement them because the programs are considered optional.
Ducey proposed an expansion of full-day kindergarten only in lower-income areas. His spokesman said the governor’s budget would fund the program in schools in which 90 percent or more of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
“Parents love it, kids love it,” Ducey said. “So I say – let’s expand it. My budget gives the lowest-income schools dollars to start or expand full-day kindergarten and address an issue we know is critical to closing the achievement gap: the ability to read by third grade.”
One of the biggest challenges for new teachers, he said, is paying off student-loan debt. He called on the state’s public universities and community colleges to create a program known as the Arizona Teachers’ Academy to erase debt for students who commit to teach in Arizona public schools.
“I’m looking for the best and brightest to commit to teach in Arizona public schools,” he said. “If you make that commitment, we’ll make this commitment: Your education will be paid for, a job will be waiting, and you will be free of debt.”
Lawmakers and other elected officials from both sides of the aisle were optimistic about portions of the speech, but said they were eagerly awaiting Ducey’s budget.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas said she was pleased with the governor’s focus on education and pointed out she, too, has proposed funding for teacher raises and school capital projects. Asked how the governor and state lawmakers might find funding for his agenda, she replied jokingly, “Thank God that’s not my problem.”
She added the lack of funding should not stop state leaders from raising awareness about school and teacher needs.
Sen. Steve Smith, a Republican from Maricopa who sits on the Senate’s education committee, said he was thrilled with Ducey’s direction, namely teacher pay increases. He said some of the governor’s goals could be paid for by moving money away from state programs “that may not be working so well.”
Other issues on the agenda
Aside from education, Ducey renewed his call for Arizona to be removed from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which garnered him one of his loudest applause lines.
Earlier this year, he said he was working with fellow Arizona Republicans U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake and U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon on federal legislation that would revisit the idea of restructuring the 9th Circuit so that the state could count on swifter and more efficient judicial service. The 9th Circuit has long been derided as too liberal by some conservatives.
The governor also called for an expansion to two years of the cash benefit the state pays low-income families, as long as recipients are actively looking for work.
Arizona’s one-year limit on the money from the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program is the strictest in the nation. That policy, which was widely criticized by Democrats and social-service advocates as excessively harsh, was put in place through legislation Ducey signed in his first year in office.
Too often, the governor said, government encourages people to be “out of a job – rather than getting a job,” because of “policies that hold people down,” instead of lift them up. Arizona, he said, should reward those who are working hard to get off unemployment, food stamps and welfare by looking for jobs.
Under his proposal, Ducey would revert the TANF program back to two years.
Ducey also proposes to help struggling Arizonans trying to start new careers by axing certain state licensing fees for those who are living in poverty.
“Perhaps they want to be a barber, or general contractor, or X-ray technician,” he said. “Why stand in their way with another tax, another fee – sometimes hundreds of dollars – before they can start earning a living?”
The governor also proposed the state test all babies for Severe Combined Immuno Deficiency, a rare genetic disorder that can be deadly if not detected.
“We have the power to save these precious human lives,” he said.
He also asked for a bill that would protect people who break into vehicles to rescue a child or pet left in a hot vehicle.
Continuing his quest to reduce “job-killing regulations,” Ducey solicited suggestions from business owners on what should be eliminated. He said his administration would research the suggestions, and if officials conclude rules or regulations don’t protect the public, they will be nixed.
“Our goal: To wipe out 500 total regulations by the end of this year,” he said.
He also touted 100,000 jobs added around the state since he took office. “The best part is that we’re not only seeing job growth in Maricopa County, but in rural Arizona and metro Tucson,” he said.
In fact, the state has seen 3.9 percent growth in total jobs since January 2015. But it remains concentrated in the state’s two population centers. Outside metro Phoenix and Tucson, the state has seen 1.3 percent job growth.
Those areas include nearly 20 percent of the state’s population, but account for less than 5 percent of the 101,000 jobs added in Arizona since January 2015.
Ducey’s speech focused more attention on the poor than the wealthy. He mentioned “low-income” earners seven times. By contrast, he mentioned “entrepreneur” or “job-creator” three times.
Tax policy has been a near-obsession of the Legislature for more than 20 years, but Ducey only mentioned taxes five times. There was no broad tax cut outlined in the speech. Instead, Ducey mainly seemed to promise not to raise them.
Republic reporters Mary Jo Pitzl, Alia Beard Rau, Ronald J. Hansen and Ricardo Cano contributed to this article.